"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
My great-uncle Donald Hustad, who would go on to become the official crusade organist for the evangelist Billy Graham, grew up with my grandfather Wes in a small town called Boone, Iowa, at a home for indigents. They weren’t orphans but their father was dead, and the Boone Biblical College and Associated Institutions took their mother, Clara, and these pale, fat-kneed boys in and gave them work and a place to sleep. For pocket money Don helped a man known as Uncle Pete hunt rabbits. Uncle Pete was no one’s uncle as far as anyone in Boone could tell, but there they were. Uncle Pete’s preferred method for catching rabbits was to send a ferret scrambling down one end of the rabbit warren while Don stood ready at the other opening, waiting for the terrified rabbits to come hurtling out. Then, fast, they snatched them up and wrung their necks and it was all over pretty quickly, bloodlessly. Knocking on doors in the late afternoon, sun cascading over nearby cornfields to stop at low-hanging eaves, Pete and Don managed to sell most of their take.
Sometimes Don took an unsold rabbit home to his mother. But Clara wasn’t comfortable accepting gifts from men, especially not Uncle Pete, and as often as not she’d push Don back out the screen door to spread his charity elsewhere. Once she sent him marching, sniffling and sad for reasons he couldn’t quite discern, dead rabbit tucked into the crook of his elbow, over to a missionary family staying down the road. This family had just returned from Africa, and after resting up in Iowa would be going back there, because more people needed to hear the good news.
Don knocks, irritation over forced goodness drying his throat.
“We don’t eat rabbit,” the missionary mom tells him. This was so surprising to Don he remembered it eighty years later.
“I had thought,” he said, “that missionaries ate anything.”
* * *
When we were bored, we rolled over to the side of the road and parked the car in front of an abandoned kunuku and ambled over, through whatever remained of the gate, careful not to scratch our legs on barbed wire and cactus bits. These old farmhouses stood vacant and when former inhabitants left, they moved swiftly, leaving most household items behind. A Nescafé mug, dried coffee caked at the bottom; rusty teaspoons; dinged aluminum pots with flame-scorched bottoms; one left sandal; an empty Alberto VO5 shampoo bottle, teeth marks suggesting its transformation into dog toy; gauzy curtains of white lace bleached and brittle from persistent sun, lifted occasionally by the breeze and the only things that moved in these kunukus, until we showed up. In the bedrooms, stained mattresses. Outside on the cactus fence, a red rag draped over a goat skull. Those were Keep Out signs for evil spirits, the missionaries who had lived on the island longer told us. It was, my father explained, like how the babies on Bonaire wore stocking caps, and you’d see that and think, weird, it’s not cold here on this Caribbean island, so why give babies woolly hats?
The answer was: because of the soft spot. People here believed that evil spirits could enter a baby’s brain through the soft spot, and after that happened, who knew what other trouble. Once the fontanel grew over, however, the hat could be safely removed.
The natives of Bonaire were superstitious, other missionaries chimed in, and my sister, Amy, had to explain to me what “superstition” meant because I was six years younger and the vocabulary used in family conversations was rarely dumbed down to my level. It means holding ideas that are not true, she said. To think certain things would happen if other things happened first.
Does that make sense? she asked.
Sure. It was like how you took a running leap into bed at night so the bogeymen beneath couldn’t grab your ankles and pull you under.
Kunukus were silent save for the breeze and creak of rusted hinges. We came to scan the dirt and tables and cupboards for treasures. Seashells, marbles, old soda bottles. Sometimes we glued bits of old sea glass onto driftwood and called it crafts and our better efforts we hung on the wall because as our mother said, there wasn’t a lot to do on Bonaire. Sometimes everything left behind at the kunuku was plastic and that was always disappointing.
We glanced back at the Toyota to make sure no one was trying to get into the backseat. Of course if you never wanted to lose a thing, you’d keep it with you, you’d pack it in your carry-on, you’d keep it on your person, because anything left in a car or placed in a suitcase was something that by definition you were okay with losing, if you had to. Like if someone wanted it more.
After a half hour I slumped down at the edge of the porch, wary of nails and splinters, and wiped sweat from my calves and behind my knees and waited for my mother and Amy to finish their search. I always finished first because, I was beginning to suspect, I didn’t know how to look. Amy always found better things, and so for a while I thought I should search longer, harder, but still she found better stuff, so I stopped trying.
But why did the people who lived here abandon their kunuku in such a hurry? They didn’t even push their chairs in.
At some point I pieced together, through snatches of conversation not meant for me, that the reason was death. The owners had convinced themselves that if they stayed a minute longer, they would die. So they up and bolted. They ran for more time. They ran toward a second third fourth chance. As Christians, we knew that they were not alone in their attempt to escape possible futures. They had an audience. Our God watched them from above and he worried, worried they would trip and fall or smack! run right into a tree branch and hurt their heads. That is what the God of my childhood did best. He worried. He worried because oh oh dear what messes we made.
* * *
Occasionally I meet someone who was raised in a secular home and I am not envious. Far more often I am. I want to crawl into their skin and take on their swagger, their stride. People who weren’t raised with the specter of an all-seeing God looking over their shoulder, meaningfully clearing his throat when you’re about to make a mistake, are more confident. They must get a lot more done, I imagine, with all the emotional and intellectual energy they save not having to translate from Christianese. Our rhetoric is full of perhapses and maybes, our mind toggles between what we think and ought to be thinking. Second-guessing like daily bread. I imagine the godless live closer to their desires. The reason my great-uncle Don was surprised to hear the missionary woman refuse rabbit was because in his mind—in all our minds—those so devoted to furthering the kingdom of God shouldn’t care too much about what they cared about. Personal preferences were luxuries, like guest soaps in guest bathrooms.
My family’s brand of Christianity involved many chores. As overseas missionaries, you make a lot of trips to the airport. You’re routinely picking people up from the airport and dropping them off at the airport. This is one reason why we like speaking of the afterlife; we fear we’ll run down the clock driving to and from the airport, and so we dream of extra days.
I moved to New York City because I didn’t want to think about these things, God least of all. All I wanted was to listen carefully and master correct pronunciations. I wanted to take note of how the beautiful people held forks and chopsticks and admired certain books but never others, not unless they were trying to be funny, and I wanted to exploit the fact that my accent made me sound wealthier than I was and slightly smarter, too. Mainly I sought forgetfulness. For a long time I was happy to have outrun God, because he really wasn’t going to be much help here.
On occasion the subject would come up. My evangelical background. Wow, flushed faces at parties leaned in to ask, what was it like growing up with adults so hooked on fairy tales? My ability to quickly change the subject eventually outstripped my embarrassment, but not before I had internalized every critique of what faith in God now signified in America: intolerance, sanctimony, tut-tutting over Hollywood and the welfare office, a yawning void where curiosity and compassion could be.
But when I felt led to a conversational place wherein I was expected to confirm that everyone who takes part in the rituals of organized religion drags their knuckles on their way to stoning the town slut, I would stop. I couldn’t. That I would have to drop the word “soul” from my vocabulary I hadn’t expected. Sometimes a day delivered snatches of the Sermon on the Mount and I pictured the sermon as my father might, with Jesus sounding suspiciously like Alan Rickman. Jesus is up on a hill, surrounded by supporters, sweat pooling in the smalls of their backs, sun glinting off distant low-slung roofs. Jesus clears his throat and speaks these demonstrably false lines about the world we actually live in:
Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness:for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers; for they shall be called the children of God.
Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Translation for people like my people: If you are humble, you will be rewarded. Turn the other cheek because vengeance is the Lord’s. If you suffer, use it. The light shining from sincere faces will be hard to deny.
When my parents visit me in New York, we avoid these questions in an East Village bar. I take them to McSorley’s on East Seventh Street because it’s dark and has sawdust on the floor. There’s always a man at the bar gesturing as if to gather everyone to his chest, loudly railing against the New England Patriots or Woody Allen’s mixed output. McSorley’s is a bar with some history, and I thought my dad would like the fact that he could hang a story off McSorley’s, a story that started with a line like “It was the oldest bar in New York” and got more sentimental from there. My father tends to push the warm brown details so that every scenario sounds like an outtake from “A Christmas Carol.”
Outside we kiss hello along with a half hug—one cheek, one-armed. That we drink alcohol still feels like a special allowance. Both of my parents grew up with Baptist pastors for fathers. From a young age they were told that some activities might be acceptable to some believers (Catholics primarily), but as for them and their household, they would shun alcohol, playing cards, and the movies. When my parents decided as a young married couple, knocking around a small white clapboard house in Iowa, that beer, wine, and an occasional brandy & 7UP were okay in God’s eyes, they hoped this small rebellion carried the hint of a more expansive righteousness. Open-mindedness, perhaps. Decades later, having a drink still feels like a decision to be a particular kind of person.
At McSorley’s in the afternoon, the aroma of stale beer has seeped into the worn wood surfaces, into the backs of framed sepia prints, overpowering the smells of cooking oil and the diluted Pine-Sol used to mop the floors at night. That soaked-in beery scent is an ungentle reminder that alcohol enjoyment has its limits, so we allow ourselves some self-congratulation: moderation is not generally a problem for us, although, as my father once said of his father: “It’s a good thing Wes never drank, or he never would have stopped. Those Baptists were like alcoholics. It’s basically the same psychology.”
Thanks be to God, my parents would say. Thanks to my ability to take care of myself, I would say. My father knows I choose to fill my time with people for whom Christianity is an outmoded concept, a vestigial tail that humanity would be better off losing. He knows most of my friends are of the opinion that the country would be better off without people who think like he does. His new status as a cultural relic bothers him. He finds it ironic that moral relativists temporarily misplace their relativism when talk turns to Jesus. He doesn’t like how “evangelical” and “fundamentalist” are so often conflated in news reports and in opinion pieces, as if there were no shadows between them. It seems to him more evidence that the United States is becoming a post-Christian society like England and much of Europe before it. Used to be, he remembers, one didn’t have to explain the contours of faith. Billy Graham appeared on prime time television. Everyone in this country, he remembered, knew what faith was for.
Now, 15 percent of Americans polled claim no religious preference, twice the number who declared themselves uninterested in God in 1990. The share of Americans who think religion “can answer all or most of today’s problems” is 48 percent—a big number, sure, but a historic low.
When Amy and I were very young, the common childhood complaint that x was not fair, while never explicitly outlawed in our house, was well understood to be fruitless. “Life’s not fair!” was always the response. We knew the story of Job and understood the moral to be the same: You believe your situation ought to improve, but God may have other ideas. To dwell on plans of your own devising was sinful.
So because my father cannot protest that the systemic devaluation of all he holds dear feels unfair to him, he watches Fox News, which says it for him. Just 60 percent of Americans identify as religious, last he heard, while the ranks of atheists swell.
My mother is quieter on the subject, as usual. When the chardonnay and mugs of foamy beer are placed in front of us she looks around the room and smiles. Her eyes rest on the spoils of our drifting afternoon—paper shopping bags and $10 probably-not-pashminas bought from a street vendor. Coats are draped over seat backs and we are careful not to kick up too much of the sawdust that blankets the floor.
“Oh, it’s so nice to sit down,” she says. We are careful not to talk about Amy.
“Remember when we saw Rudy Giuliani at the Columbus Day parade? That was fun.”
Both my parents shook his hand; my mother snapped a photo. We also know we cannot discuss politics or religion, so conversation pivots to subjects that do not expose how different we’ve become. Technology is one such subject; none of us likes it much. My father is intensely suspicious of social media. He is also suspicious of people who get paid to tell other people how much everyone ought to be enjoying these new gadgets and how effective they make you and your photogenic family.
“You know most people think technology is neutral,” he says. “Morally neutral. They think that the means don’t affect us. That the technology is just at our disposal, doing what we want it to do but nothing more. But technology always bends toward the dark side.”
I had heard him say this before. It was another favorite theme. By “always” he meant always and by “dark side” he meant that any new technological whizbang would eventually be used to hurt people, whether it be TNT or the efficient delivery of asphyxiate gas to shower stalls. That the harm in some cases was self-inflicted, of the type-A-who-can’t-put-down-his-BlackBerry kind, didn’t matter to him. His thinking on this front was heavily influenced by Jacques Ellul, a professor of law and sociology at the University of Bordeaux and a French Reformed lay minister who wrote some thirty books on Protestant theological themes. My father had read Ellul’s “The Technological Society” at the recommendation of an old mentor, and Ellul’s general idea that technology took on a life of its own, essentially training users to adapt to it rather than the other way around, had taken firm root in my father’s mind around the same time he began questioning what he was really doing with his life, which if we as a family had to pull out a calendar and point to exact dates, would all select 1987, our widely acknowledged Most Crappy Year.
Ellul was also highly suspicious of our culture’s tendency to celebrate efficiency, and this, too, my father appreciated. Wishing someone Happy Birthday! on Facebook, for instance. Why in the world would anyone do that? my father wanted to know. Maybe wishing someone a Happy Birthday shouldn’t be so simple. Perhaps some tasks shouldn’t be relatively effortless, maybe true gifts involved sacrifice, and perhaps we shouldn’t assume we’d won some victory over time whenever we accomplished something faster. Left unchecked, social media would land us in a Tower of Babel moment. We’d all be blue in the face from talking, pinging, communicating all the time, and we’d lose the ability to say the unsayable.
He took a sip of beer, wiped his lips. My father drinks slowly. Because his black eyebrows are heavy and his jaw square, people used to say he looked like Marlon Brando, and he did for a while, until Brando ballooned and my father stayed roughly the same size. Most of his hair—shiny black, straight as straw—fell out from the top of his head when he was twenty-one. He’s bald on top in their wedding photo. Before he stopped wearing a toupee about ten years ago, he had gray hairs added to it annually to match increasingly salt-and-pepper sideburns. My mother had been hounding him for years to be bald and proud, and now that he is, she fixes her gaze on his now-shiny bald head and smiles a crinkle-eyed smile. She is proud of him, of her, of all this evidence of our collective . . . something. She’d always preferred practicalities while he preferred abstractions, but in this choice to go bald they found common ground.
“Did you read ‘Propaganda?’” he asks me. “Propaganda” was another one of Ellul’s books that accompanied us from house to house during my childhood, and—pure coincidence—I had recently discovered that the publishing company I worked for still had the paperback in print. I mentioned this to my father via email.
I shook my head. I hadn’t and didn’t want to. I only kept a copy on the shelf as a reminder of things and people I’d left behind.
“’Propaganda’ nails the mass media right to the wall,” he says with some satisfaction.
I did not ask him how that premise—that the mass media deserved to be nailed to the wall—jibed with his earlier decision to spend nine years of our family’s life using 500,000-kilowatt radio towers to spread the Gospel. I also failed to see how it squared with his enjoyment of Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly and Dennis Prager podcasts. He had started to send me links to Wall Street Journal articles, so clearly some media was fine, and media that supported his increasingly conservative politics was not part of the subset of mass media that deserved to be nailed to the wall.
I nodded and looked to my mother. She just didn’t like all the stupid chain emails, she said. Some people just don’t know when to stop, she said. Or not forward emails.
She twirled the stem of her wineglass so its contents swirled to the rim.
A waitress stopped by to ask if we wanted another round. We did not. The afternoon was getting tired.
What did they still want to see or do in the city, I asked. Maybe the Frick? The Strand Book Store? Did Mom still want to look for knockoff purses in Chinatown? We are either overwhelmed by choice or straining to stay within the narrow band of our shared interests, but all we’ve decided by the time the check arrives is that after they nap at the hotel and I do whatever it is I do, we’ll reconvene for Indian food at 6:30.
Conflicting views over the appropriate size of the tip are negotiated through eyebrows and frowns. When my father visits the men’s room, my mother tucks an additional $2 into the check holder. Her eyes are almond-shaped and her complexion heavy cream, and while individually her features are hard to fault, their total falls several marks shy of beautiful, or so she has believed. Her dimples all but shout a desire to please.
“I just love New York,” she says. “It’s so interesting. So fascinating. I can’t believe how well you know your way around the city. So impressive. You just know where everything is.”
Her compliments to New York and to me are sincere but I push them away.
“There’s no need to be impressed.” I shrug. “I’ve lived here for eight years.”
“I know. But still,” she says. “It’s so neat. I’m so proud of you.”
That Christian commentators over many centuries have asserted that cities, unlike the Garden of Eden or mountains, which confronted us with God’s majesty, were constructed precisely to provide a workable alternative to God is the background we’re speaking against. Neither of us need reference the notion because it’s in our blood. Also understood between us is that my mother’s embrace of New York is her tiny rebellion, her signal to herself and to me, and to anyone who may be watching, that she’s really quite open-minded.
Earlier on in this brief visit to New York she sat at my kitchen table and turned the pages of the Sunday New York Times, flipping first, as was her habit, to the obituaries. “My goodness. They go on for pages. Look at all these clubs and . . . associations. Wow. New York is a very impressive place.”
Because I had my head in the refrigerator I couldn’t read her expression. But I knew she meant that the Times was a monument to success measured in terms that made her squirm, or that the newspaper somehow knew that she, its reader, had never graduated from college.
All that to say this is not a story of judgmental zealots thumping pulpits and demanding we all come to a reckoning with our shortcomings before a perfect God. This is not a story about pious blowhards whose unbending conviction alienated their children forever.
Mistakes were made, but not the ones popularly imagined.
Which is to say that the Christians I know best are brokenhearted.
Every week for years my father has received a phone call from the 718 area code. At least one, sometimes more. The caller is usually a gentleman from the Bronx trying to reach a nearby AIDS clinic. A few months after this first began happening, my father finally asked a caller how he got his number. Turned out his 1-800 number was a single digit off the AIDS clinic’s number, and so easily misdialed. Instead of changing his number he kept answering the 718 wrong numbers, and, as he explained to me, every time it happens he pays the 3¢ and says a quick prayer for these men from the Bronx. I tried to suggest that he probably doesn’t need that 1-800 number anymore because hardly anyone uses 1-800 numbers anymore given that cell phone plans typically cover long distance calls and so any implied cost savings extended toward existing clients or prospective clients is really meaningless, and besides, does he want clients who would hesitate before placing a long distance call they’d have to pay for?
He keeps the 1-800 number.
We emerge blinking from McSorley’s and look around us. To eyes not accustomed to its bricks and grime, the East Village looks both more sinister and more glamorous than it does to those used to how its old brick buildings flaunt lived-in-ness. There are still pockets of youth and flash, but the real money has moved south and farther east.
I hail a cab for my parents. I start walking south. As the East Village transitions to the Lower East Side, class disparities among strangers on the street become starker. The Lower East Side is a jumble of skin tones, colors, and noise, litter-strewn and loud. Here one-hundred-year-old four-story tenements are quickly replaced by glass-fronted sixteen-story “luxury” apartment towers with glossy lobbies and earpieced doormen who grew up in housing projects six blocks away. But when you glimpse an idling Cadillac Escalade, you still think “drug dealer,” as it wasn’t that long ago that heroin addicts claimed these streets as their own.
Now the streets teem with still-beautiful bodies, giggles, European tourists and college kids and more kids from the projects, all wearing clothes from Forever 21, babies having babies, bummed cigarettes and hipsters and that guy, always that guy, who’s just realized that he’s the oldest guy at the nightclub.
They’re all doing fine. They’re all fine, and when I’m blocks away from my memories I can think out loud: if God exists, surely he does not care whether these kids believe in him. If God exists, surely he delights in them.
“Stories of pious children tend to be false,” Flannery O’Connor once remarked, and I found this line in a book of essays and underlined it, because that was my experience. What I most remember feeling in the presence of God was bashfulness. When at age five I told my mother that I wanted to accept Jesus into my heart, she pulled me into her lap and we prayed. Afterward she sniffled and a glassiness in her eyes suggested she was near tears. But isn’t this what I’m supposed to do? I wondered. Clean your plate, clean your room, love this idea we call God. I scrambled off her lap and ran to grab my swimsuit because we’d be spending the afternoon at the beach.
The register my father’s voice takes on when describing their decision to leave jobs as a high school teacher (him) or something-or-other career track at JCPenney (my mother) and become overseas missionaries is textured like driveway gravel.
“There was a richness about that experience. We were thirty-three, thirty-four—” he pauses. After a beat, he swallows and begins again.
“Your mother and I were very unsophisticated people, and at the age of thirty-three and thirty-one we quit Minnesota and we quit everything traditional and bought a Volkswagen camper and took our two kids and ran off to the Caribbean. Then Europe. In many ways, that’s pretty unconventional. I think if we had been more sophisticated, we wouldn’t have taken such risks.”
These are dog whistles. Appeals to my sympathy. You and me, he’s saying—we are not so dissimilar after all. You may not appreciate me now, but you began here, with us. You crafted your life from materials we provided. For years as a young adult I feared being Christian meant congratulating yourself on accomplishments of scant economic utility, like not complaining when you broke your hip. I was afraid being Christian equaled not knowing how the game was really played. He sensed these judgments in every terse email exchange.
At my apartment, a snapshot of Amy and me—1978— standing in the back door of a baby-blue-and-white Volkswagen camper. It’s parked in my grandparents’ dirt driveway underneath elm trees. Our family was about to leave Minnesota for a month of missions training in Florida. Strangely, our outfits match the Volkswagen. I do not think this was deliberate. Amy would have been nearly nine, me three. We’re giggling.
It was late summer, so there must have been raspberries from my grandparents’ garden, and worries that we’d stain our clothes. From memories acquired later I know that Marian enjoyed telling her granddaughters that she prayed for us every day, each of us girls by name. She clutched floral cotton handkerchiefs, shaking her fist for emphasis, which, with the handkerchief spilling out, her good posture, chin up, gave the proclamation a V-for-Victory flair. Raspberries for the road in an empty Cool Whip container. My mother wearing late-seventies sunglasses. Orville would have started his send-off prayer with “Heavenly Father” and asked for our safety and the safety of others traveling the interstates with us.
I imagine my father would have been mostly silent, glancing at his Casio watch, swallowing impatiently at the drawn-out goodbyes. I imagine if he ever voiced his desire to get the show on the road, that’s what he would have muttered. Let’s get this show on the road. But not for his sake. He would never want to imply that. For the sake of avoiding heavy traffic.
On the third day of traveling we reached Boca Raton. Amy frowned as the camper pulled into the paved driveway of the Bibletown Community Church and Conference Center because Bibletown was not, contrary to her hopes, an open-air museum that simulated everyday life in ancient times. It was a modern building ringed by cement, closely cropped grass, and palm trees. Adults here studied fundraising techniques and how to handle culture shock while kids played in the pool under the watchful eye of volunteer teenagers who, after much prayer, had determined that serving as lifeguard for the children of future missionaries would consecrate their summer vacation.
One long day Amy decided it would be fun to jump off the diving board backward. She came within an inch of scraping skin off her nose and landed in the pool with limbs splayed awkwardly. The bad splash prompted every adult witness to scramble out of lounge chairs in anticipation of having to pull a dead girl from the water, and the sixteen-year-old lifeguard to shed hiccupy near-miss tears once Amy was safely back pool-side, flinging water drops from her face with shaking fingers. She was fine, Amy insisted. Everybody stop making a fuss.
Our second week in Florida: Disney World. For one last blast of U.S.A., our father said. Midday it started pouring rain so Mom ducked into the nearest souvenir shop and returned with two blue Magic Kingdom beach towels.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Amy said. Our mother began draping a blue towel over Amy’s skinny head and shoulders, urging us to huddle closer. Amy and I looked around at other kids—resplendent in hooded Disney rain gear. Drops ran off the slick edges of pink Cinderella rain ponchos and it appeared these rain poncho owners were having much, much more fun.
“But it’s raining. Mom! Why didn’t you get us rain ponchos?”
“I got towels because rain ponchos won’t really be needed on Bonaire. But we will probably never have enough beach towels, you know?”
Within five minutes the downpour had slackened into drips and we ventured out from under the awning a little wiser.
Much, much later, over white wine and Marlboro Lights, Amy would pinpoint the pink Cinderella rain poncho hour as a pivotal moment of her awakening.
“That’s when I knew we were poor,” she said. She stamped out her Marlboro Light and lit another one. We will keep having this conversation, Amy and I. According to this version of our story, excessive and poorly executed love of God had cheated us out of futures we deserved. We would be secular with a vengeance.
* * *
When family myths break, by which I mean stop working, it helps to place disparate memories in some semblance of order. The thing is, to remember any event correctly, you have to have noticed it in the first place. This noticing sensation then travels to your brain’s hippocampus, where it is encoded. When we say we experienced something, that’s what we’re talking about, this bundle of sensations and perceptions being packaged by the hippocampus. Our hippocampus gathers these packages and weighs them and decides which ones are important enough to become long-term memories. When we remember a thing, our hippocampus pulls these packages out of storage and attaches words to them. Every time we do this, that memory becomes stronger. The rest lapses into shadow. Memories rarely hauled out of storage become harder and harder to find. Some are manufactured from photographs and assumptions borrowed from other memories.
Try remembering, too, when you don’t see your relatives that often. The routine hauling out of memories, shaping and refining them against one another’s versions of what happened, is not routine for someone like you. Especially when you’re afraid to remember because who you are is not something you’re sure you want to know.
After years of feeling like an alien I knew I had fully reassimilated into American culture when I overheard myself defending “Have a nice day.” A visiting Londoner was intent on informing me it was urghhh too too saccharine and stupid. I protested that the practice was harmless, and in any event better than wishing someone ill—a common enough occurrence in any culture. What I failed to realize then is that I wasn’t just talking about America, and I wasn’t only thinking of social pleasantries. I was defending my evangelists. I heard echoes of my mother, my grandmother, church ladies everywhere singing This is the day that the Lord has made; Let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Excerpted from “More Than Conquerors: A Memoir of Lost Arguments” by Megan Hustad. Copyright © 2014 by Megan Hustad. Reprinted by arrangement with Farrar, Straus and Giroux. All rights reserved.
Megan Hustad is the author of How to Be Useful: A Beginner's Guide to Not Hating Work," published by Houghton Mifflin. More Megan Hustad.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)